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Quartz doubles down on newsletters: Here’s why

Has Quartz, the ‘global economy brand’, found a magic formula for its content? The publisher thinks so, and this month has launched four new newsletters that in its own words is a refreshed strategy designed to ‘put weekly emails at the center of membership’. 

The four newsletters include The Forecast (a short, sharp look at an emerging industry, technology, or trend), The Company (looking at how companies are changing ‘work’), How To (tips on how to work and live more effectively), and The Weekend Brief (a wider lens on the week’s big stories). 

It comes ten months after the shock sale of Quartz to its own staff in November 2020, itself less than three years after Japanese publisher Uzabase bought the publisher from Atlantic Media. 

Uzabase’s tenure was not a success – as Digiday’s Steven Perlberg wrote last summer, soon after Quartz laid off nearly half its staff in a major restructuring, “Quartz has joined a growing club of publications that seemingly got caught in the mushy middle of 2010s digital media, like Mic and Mashable. Not quite niche enough to be essential to a small group of readers, but not quite big enough to compete at scale.”

In short, Quartz’s new newsletter strategy is crucial not just to its long-term success, but to its continued viability as a staff-owned publisher.

Email newsletter secrets

Fortunately, Quartz is no stranger to email newsletters and has become rather good at them, regularly achieving open rates of 35% or more for its Daily Brief and Quartz Obsession newsletters which reach over 500k readers every day.

Its early newsletters followed a simplified, pared-down template:

  • Text only, no imagery
  • More information within the email itself, so the reader wasn’t forced to click on the links
  • Written in a deeply engaging tone & style (as though it was an email from a friend)

The emails were then rounded off with a corny joke that Zach Steward, Quartz’s CEO, disclosed was one of its most engaged pieces of content back in pre-pandemic days, “not because it’s funny but because there’s a human on the other end”. The cheesy jokes continue to this day.

Our main strategy was to create a great email that you can read entirely in your inbox but you don’t have to click the links. The KPI is open rates. We want you to open it, love it and then open it again the next day. We check the main active users, who open at least once a week, in a week across all our emails sent that week. Active matters.

Zach Steward, CEO, Quartz, speaking to Digiday

Quartz emails have evolved since then to include links to both internally-produced content as well as external links to other publishers. Imagery, videos and embedded gifs have also made their way into Quartz’s emails, with Quartz editor-in-chief Katherine Bell, telling WNIP that, “Our readers need to know what’s happening in global business, they want to understand what it means in context, and they don’t have a lot of time. To bring more context into an email without bogging people down, we offer a bit more information and point to more opportunities to keep reading.”

We slow down the flow a little and break up the reading experience with things like images and quizzes and lists. And we explain things to readers the way we would to a friend or colleague, which GIFs and emoji and jokes can help do.

Katherine Bell, editor-in-chief, Quartz

In the early days, Quartz’s emails were restricted by email client-server tech, but as this has improved (notably Gmail), so has Quartz’s ability to create dynamic emails that super-engage readers. 

We have whimsical poll questions and you can pick your answer in the email, it makes a call to our server, which responds with the results and updates the display right there. People like it and it keeps them coming back.

Zach Steward, CEO, Quartz, speaking to Digiday

Trial and Error

That’s not to say all of Quartz’s newsletters have been a success. A number have fallen by the wayside due to lack of engagement, with Quartz’s crypto newsletter, Private Key, being a high-profile casualty in late 2019. Expertly written and well researched, the crypto newsletter fell by way of its tone which alienated the crypto community with an overtly cynical viewpoint.

Other newsletters that have shut down include Quartzy, Race to Zero, and Future of Finance. All of these had loyal and engaged subscribers, but as a smaller newsroom, Quartz decided to end them to refocus reporters’ time on other priorities and make room for new experiments.

“In some ways, Private Key was ahead of its time. In 2018 we weren’t 100% ready to support member newsletters, and many readers weren’t quite prepared for them either. (Substack had only just launched at the time.) The main challenges of any newsletter, paid or not, are finding the right readers and keeping them engaged even when doing so forces you to change your approach. That’s been easier for us in some cases than others, but overall we’re nimble about change and not precious about it when we can’t meet one of those challenges,” says Bell.

Another issue Quartz has faced has been the scaling up of its newsletters. Whilst some have been hugely successful, such as Quartz Africa Weekly which has 100k subs, the publisher has found some of its topic-based newsletters difficult to scale up. 

It’s been difficult to replicate the kind of strong engagement 20 times over. We’ve not seen value in having 20 emails with a few thousand subscribers each. We didn’t see it as something that would work and scale well.

Zach Steward, CEO, Quartz, speaking to Digiday

This is further compounded by the concern that too many email newsletters can overwhelm Quartz’s audience. Whilst that is mitigated by Quartz’s own March 2021 survey which showed that 75% of Quartz’s members primarily accessed the publisher’s content through email, Bell admits that there is “always that danger”, adding “but this forces us to be very selective and careful in what we bring our readers attention to”.

Revenue implications

Quartz’s refreshed email strategy brings its newsletter portfolio to a total of eleven, five of which are exclusive to its 27,000 members who pay $14.99 per month or $99.99 per year for the benefit of accessing both the emails and website. Another one of the 11, written in Japanese, is a separate subscription.

Moving forwards, the key to Quartz’s future growth and longevity will be how it converts more of its 1.3 million newsletter subscribers to active paying members. Whilst its membership base is increasing 71% year-over-year, and with $3M in subscription revenue forecast for 2021, the publisher still relies heavily on advertising revenue as well as 50% discounts and referral offers that are often included in its newsletters:

“We see our advertising and membership businesses as complementary—both rely on the quality, depth, and longevity of our relationship with our readers. As we’ve learned more about how to create a great and distinctive experience for our members, we’ve been able to translate that into more value for our advertising clients as well,” says Bell.

Whilst Quartz is one of many publishers to invest in newsletters to acquire and engage paying readers, it has become one of the few publishers to become so adept in using the medium that it is able to hinge its entire membership strategy around them. Other publishers will be watching with interest.